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LOCAL ELECTIONS

Balloting will test strength of Democrats

May 30, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County voters on Tuesday will be asked to choose from a host of candidates running in federal, state and local races, to weigh in on development measures in Thousand Oaks and Santa Paula and to decide in an unusually hard-fought battle for a judgeship.

The state primary balloting will also be closely watched by both major parties, analysts say, to see what effect the Democrats' new status as the largest voting group in Ventura County will have on contests.

Mike Osborn, chairman of the county's Republican Party, predicts minimal effects in Republican-dominated districts.

"Most of the gains were made in areas that are already solidly Democratic," Osborn said. "What we're interested in seeing is how many of these new people actually show up."

For the first time in a generation, Democrats hold a registration edge over Republicans, with 4,123 more voters than the GOP. Party leaders credit strong registration drives earlier this year in Oxnard, Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley with helping them turn the tide.

But voter data also indicate that a significant chunk of people have fled the GOP for other affiliations. Although Democrats have held a roughly steady 40% share of the electorate since 1990, the GOP's voter share has shrunk to 38% from 47% over the same period.

Jim Dantona, a Democratic consultant, said he knows several former Republicans, turned off by the policies of the Bush administration, who have re-registered with decline-to-state status.

"These are conservative Reagan Republicans who have told me they want something different," said Dantona, who lost a close race in 2006 for the 4th District supervisor's seat in Simi Valley to Republican Peter Foy. "They are tired of the same old politics and the same old things."

Republicans have also been signing up new voters, Osborn said. But they haven't been able to match the Democrats' fundraising, which has been driven by high interest in the presidential election, he said.

"Given their manpower and money, it gave them an edge that was very difficult for us to overcome," Osborn said.

One of the more closely watched contests on Tuesday will be the Democratic primary in the 24th Congressional District. Insurance agent Mary Pallant of Oak Park; Marta Jorgensen, a Solvang educator; and Oxnard businesswoman Jill Martinez are running.

Martinez lost in 2006 to 11-term Republican incumbent Elton Gallegly. Democratic leaders will be watching Pallant's primary performance closely to see if she might be a stronger candidate to take on Gallegly in the November contest, Dantona said. Gallegly is expected to easily defeat Thousand Oaks attorney Michael Tenenbaum in their primary rematch.

The Democratic battle between Assemblyman Lloyd Levine and former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley in the 23rd Congressional District is also getting attention because the winner is expected to face only token opposition in November.

In the 37th Assembly District, Democrat Ferial Masry is hoping for a rematch against incumbent Republican Audra Strickland in the fall. Masry, a Newbury Park teacher, has twice been defeated by Strickland and faces business owner David Hare of Camarillo in the primary.

In the Board of Supervisors race, three incumbents are seeking reelection in a low-key campaign.

Most attention has been focused on a three-way battle for the 5th District supervisor's seat that has been held by Supervisor John Flynn of Oxnard for 32 years.

Flynn has fended off accusations by his challengers, Oxnard City Councilman John Zaragoza and teacher Denis O'Leary, that his temper and fights with other board members have made him ineffective in office.

The veteran supervisor contends that he looks out for his constituents first and that he is not worried if that angers some people.

If Flynn is unable to win a majority in the primary, he will face one of the two challengers in the November election.

In the other two county contests, Supervisor Steve Bennett of Ventura faces only write-in opposition, while Supervisor Kathy Long of Camarillo will defend her seat against first-time candidate Socorro Lopez Hanson, a Camarillo executive.

Of the four ballot measures, two center on school finance and two on development.

The most hotly contested is Measure B in Thousand Oaks, which would require a public vote on any new large development projected to cause traffic snarls.

The measure is financed by Do-It Center, a home improvement store in Thousand Oaks, which opposes plans by Home Depot to build a superstore a mile away.

Critics of the ballot measure, including Home Depot, Janss Marketplace and Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center, have put up a stiff fight.

Together, the two sides have spent more than $1.3 million on the measure so far.

A rare open seat on the Superior Court bench has sparked heated competition between longtime prosecutor Jeff Bennett of Ojai and Robert Orellana, a lawyer in the county counsel's office.

Orellana's supporters have been pushing hard for him, saying that as a Latino and a lawyer with experience in civil law, he would bring more balance to a bench dominated by non-Latino white judges, many of them former prosecutors.

Bennett has the backing of the county's law enforcement establishment, including Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten, Sheriff Bob Brooks and former Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez. Bennett, a former police officer, joined the district attorney's office in 1989 and has steadily risen through the ranks to his current post as chief deputy district attorney.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

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